The amount of sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean at the end of melt season in September has receded by about 3% per decade since 1981, with a record low set in 2012. Less sea ice means more open water, and rapid Arctic climate change has essentially created new international waterways for shipping and resource extraction activities. The area of seasonally ice-free waters is likely to continue to widen over the coming decades, and Navy wants to keep tabs on it.
That's because Arctic has the potential to become one of the more geopolitically important bodies of water on Earth, due to the shipping routes it may unlock as well as oil and gas resources it may free up. As summer sea ice continues to decline in response to global warming and natural climate variability, Alaska's 1,000 miles of Arctic coast could become important to maintaining a vigilant defense as well as search and rescue and oil spill response capabilities.
The U.S. government believes the Arctic Ocean contains 30% of Earth's undiscovered natural gas, and 13% of the planet's undiscovered oil, both resources that would be of significant interest to the U.S. and other nations.
Canada made a case for extending its Northern border at the United Nations this past December, and Russia responded by declaring it would ramp up its military presence in the region. Even China has realized that new Arctic shipping lanes could bolster its economy, and has made moves to be recognized as a “near-Arctic state."
America's knowledge of the Arctic Ocean needs to increase if it wants to keep up with other countries, and for the Navy, that means a lot more than taking a few routine trips up North. The Navy outlined what it would take last week in an updated version of its Arctic Roadmap (below), which was first released in 2009, and it details an effort that is very much a work in progress. That's okay, because the major trade routes through all that Arctic ice aren't going to be well-trafficked for at least a couple decades, but the Navy believes it understands so little about how to operate in the Arctic that it has to start learning more now.
What the Navy does know about this expanding ocean is that conducting routine operations there will be a challenging task. Bob Freeman, a public affairs officer for the Navy's Office of the Oceanographer, told Mashable that storms can flare up from nowhere, huge chunks of ice float aimlessly and no one has plotted where the deep water ends and the dangerous shallows begin. Freeman even heard that a Coast Guard vessel sent to the Arctic found itself in water so cold that its fuel turned to sludge.
That's a problem that would have been hard to foresee, and there will likely be many more, which is why the Navy's roadmap talks about gathering knowledge in the area.
“They’re pretty clear with the uncertainty they’re facing and how that’s complicating their planning in the region," Kevin Casey, a senior fellow at the The Arctic Institute, told Mashable.
That means the Navy will want to send more planes to fly above the ice, more submarines to cruise below it, and even a few surface vessels to travel on top of it. By 2020, the roadmap says the Navy wants to "increase the number of personnel trained in Arctic operations," and it also wants to run more joint military drills with other Arctic nations such as Russia and Norway.
"In a way we look at the Arctic environment as a common enemy," Freeman said. "We've heard from all of the other Arctic nations that navies are welcome in the Arctic."
It would also help to have some infrastructure in the Arctic and some ships that are equipped for the conditions. Compared to other Arctic nations, such as Canada and Russia, the U.S. has relatively few ships and aircraft devoted to Arctic patrols. Worse, it doesn't operate any icebreakers, instead relying on two aging Coast Guard vessels.
Right now, the closest Naval base to the Arctic Circle is in Kodiak, Alaska, about 1,000 miles South.
“It’s very clear that more icebreakers are needed," Seth Myers, a research associate at The Arctic Institute, told Mashable. "It’s just that right now it’s very unlikely that Congress is going to approve them.”
The Navy could spend some cash to "ice harden" some of its existing fleet, but steeling a ship against sea ice makes it slower and less effective in temperate waters. Plus, that protective shell can cost 33% of what it would take to build a whole new ship. Icebreakers aren't a much better proposition. Those ships take 8-10 years to build and cost $800 million-$1 billion, Myers said. Such expenses are hard to justify when the Pentagon is slashing spending and shrinking its forces in the wake of the Iraq War and the drawdown in troops from Afghanistan.
The same logic goes for building a naval base inside the Arctic Circle. Right now, as the military budget is tightening, the Navy's roadmap indicates that it's just not a priority.
“The Navy is dealing with a lot of push back on its platforms across the board, so it has to focus on the most immediate threat," Myers said. “As a result, it’s not going to push extremely hard for capabilities that match requirements that are pretty far out in the future.”
And the oceanographer's office understands that. The purpose of the new roadmap wasn't to start building icebreakers and bases near the top of the world, but to outline how much money the Navy might want to allocate for Arctic exploration, and to provide a basic timeline for when serious exploration should begin.
"If you don't have a requirement, you don't get funding," Freeman said. "That's how it works. This will provide requirements for us that we can use to justify investment."
And future funding is not out of the question, given that the issue has some new high-level attention.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced in February that the State Department would soon name a "Special Representative for the Arctic Region," which some have referred to as an Arctic ambassador. That person will "play a critical role in advancing American interests in the Arctic Region," Kerry said in a statement. "President Obama and I are committed to elevating our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic’s rapid transformation — a very rare convergence of almost every national priority in the most rapidly-changing region on the face of the Earth."